One More Question…

You’ve been with the customer for close to 40 minutes. From your perspective, the meeting has gone well. You got through all your recommended products and background and the customer seemed engaged throughout… she even asked some really great questions. All seems positive and optimistic.

And then you say… So, what do you think our next steps are ?

And then she says… Give us some time to get our direction and budgets aligned. Maybe in the meantime you can write some of this up and send it to me?

And just like that… it all goes away. Once again, you’ve ended up in the friend zone. You’ve had a polite, inoffensive, inconclusive call that will not lead to any kind of business commitment. It didn’t have to be this way.

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What if instead, you’d asked… So, Jen, based on our discussion, will you recommend this program to the client for $800K and a Q1 activation?

She might still have said something like… Well, I don’t know yet. We’re still waiting to see what the budget will look like.

And then you could have said… Can you tell me more about the budgeting process? How are you feeling about it this year? Does the client seem like he’ll be thinking expansively?

Or… If the budgets come in at a reasonable level, can you tell me how the decision to move on this would happen?  Who’d be involved in making that call?

Or… I know there’s more work to be done. How do you feel personally about the idea? Is it something that you think makes sense for the client?

The initial closing question – the one about $800K in Q1 – may sound abrupt to the ears of the average seller. This may be because of Impostor Syndrome — not feeling like you deserve to ask it. Or because your meeting was just a recitation of your company and your products and there was really nothing to ask for.

But it may also be because you misunderstand the real purpose of closing. We don’t ask a firm closing question because we expect the customer to say yes. We ask it because we want to get to all the other questions… the ones that qualify the opportunity… that help us understand the decision process… that identify other decision makers… and that give insights into the opinions and motivations of the person across the desk.

There’s always one more question to ask. The quality and value of your sales calls depends on how they end. That’s why they call it closing.

The Sale You Save.

Among the sales teams I work with, the list of symptoms is remarkably consistent:  long, unstable sales cycles; buyers going radio silent after receiving proposals; small deal sizes; low close rates; too many small ‘tests’ that lead nowhere; lack of pipeline visibility; weak forecasting.

Sound familiar?  The symptoms are so consistent because they all stem from the same disease.  Your sellers aren’t closing.  This may sound simplistic, and your senior sellers might even take exception with my diagnosis, but look a little closer and you’ll see that I’ve actually got it right.

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Closing isn’t a cliché, nor is it just a general attitude or posture on a sales call.  It’s a very specific event within the discussion; a direct question that either does or doesn’t get asked.  But rather than guess about whether your sellers are closing or taking their word for it, take this simple test.

  1. When you ask your team members about their upcoming sales calls, do they often use words like education and evangelism?
  2. Do they talk about seeing how the customer feels about the program or opportunity?
  3. Is the program or package in question attached directly to an urgent business problem?
  4. Does it have a specific expiration date attached to it?
  5. Is there a specific dollar figure attached to your recommendation? (Instead of just a range of options and levels.)

If your answers tended toward yes, yes, no, no and no, then you’ve got a closing problem.  Your seller is choosing (consciously or otherwise) a comfortable, non-confrontational conclusion to the meeting.  They’re telling the customer to please consider it or lamely offering to touch base again soon to see what you guys want to do.  They’re saying anything and everything besides asking the question that will improve all your business metrics.  Will you buy this from us?

Here’s an exercise you can do with your team that will start to immediately improve the situation.  As your sellers prepare to go on their next sales calls, ask Exactly what are we asking this customer to do?  and What’s the specific price tag or estimate you’re going to give them?   Now sit down across from your seller and role play:  have them ask you for the order in the exact words they would use with the client.  Is this going to be an uncomfortable moment?  Absolutely.  But if they can’t say the words to you, they damn sure can’t say them to the customer.

Comfortable, inconclusive meetings are a luxury you can no longer afford.  Ask your sellers the hard questions today so they can start asking your buyers hard questions tomorrow.  And be sure to let me know how it goes.

This Drift was originally posted in 2014.  And our sellers still aren’t closing. We’re now booking workshops for second quarter 2019.  If you you think I can help you or your team, visit our site or reach out to me directly.

The Happy Heisman.

Every advertising sales boss in history has pushed every advertising seller to reach and persuade more senior customers.  Don’t get stuck with the transactional buyers, they say.  I want you seeing clients and the people who run accounts at the agency.  So the sellers dutifully arrange those meetings: they prepare, they research, they drop names, they bring in the big guns from their own organizations.  And too often, something unexpected happens.


Well, actually it doesn’t feel like nothing when it’s happening.  What it feels like is progress.  It feels like the client likes you and supports the idea.  It feels like they really want to see it happen.  It feels like you’re getting a benevolent recommendation for further action on your program.  What you’re really getting is the Happy Heisman.

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Many sellers of a certain age can identify with getting the Heisman, being pushed away or deflected by the customer.  (As illustrated by the pose of the famous Heisman Trophy, of course.)  When the client or senior agency director says Be sure the team sees this or Once we have budget we’ll take a look at this, they’re really just giving you a soft exit.  There’s no real upside for them to say This will never happen… that would just invite a longer conversation.  A much safer bet to offer gaudy good wishes as you leave the conference room.

It doesn’t have to end like this.  A couple of strategic changes can help.

What exactly did you ask for?  If you didn’t know precisely what you wanted this client to do at the end of your meeting, they’re not going to figure it out for you.  If you’re asking her to recommend your program or approve the budget for it, you need to ask questions using those specific verbs. 100% of questions that go unasked go unanswered.

Not so fast… The very moment when a client says something supportive is exactly when most sellers stop selling.  But it’s actually when you should start. Ask the client to stay with the deal.  I appreciate your support on this.  But when someone in your position steps away it’s too easy for the wheels to come off.  May I keep you involved? Can I connect with you every other week to see that this is moving forward?  You’ll know quickly how committed or serious this customer really is.

Go big.  Big decision makers want to make big decisions.  Too often we bring a junior agenda to a senior meeting.  The client really doesn’t give a shit about whether you get on the media plan or not.  Make sure that your solution is level appropriate and makes the marketer or agency better, and isn’t just an improvement to the plan or CPM.

And remember, the opposite of yes isn’t no.  The opposite of yes is anything other than yes.

Do the Math. Make the Sale.

“I was told there’d be no math.”  ~ Ethan Hawke as Troy, “Reality Bites.”

Like it or not, there’s math.  And if you want to make the sale, you’re going to have to dust off the calculator.

When I work with teams of sellers in sales strategy workshops, I introduce them to a tactical tool called The Teaching Challenge.  Inspired by the great conceptual work of Dixon and Adamson in The Challenger Sale, it’s really just a very clear statement – preferably written and shared early in the sales call – that answers the question “So why are we here today?”  The answer should challenge the customer’s assumptions and summon up and re-frame an urgent business problem.  This then creates a meaningful path to your solution.

I’ve come to discover that the best Teaching Challenges almost always revolve around numbers.  When reps take the time to do the math – even if the math is questioned by the customer – it almost always creates the urgency and focus that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

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But very few sellers do the math.  Instead, they throw out meaningless generalities like “we’ll help you reach more millennial moms” or “we can help make your media plan more efficient.”  How many more millennial moms?  In what period of time?  What’s their economic value to my brand?  How much more efficient will you help me become?  How much money will I save this quarter?  If I’m the customer, I may not necessarily expect you to have all the answers.  But I at least want to know you asked the right questions.

But isn’t impossible to find these answers?  If your standard is immutable truth, then perhaps. But that’s not where the bar should be set.  Each of us can approach our customer with a working hypothesis about the scope and cost of her unsolved problem or unrealized opportunity.

Old, traditional approach:  “Young urban men are really important to your brand, and we’ll help you reach a lot more of them.”

After doing the math:  “We’re estimating that there will be 2.5 million urban, millennial men actively searching online for a product like yours in the next 6 weeks. Every 5% of that active market you win means $3 million in sales.  You’ve got a window of opportunity to get to these customers with a proactive strategy before your competitor, brand X, does.  We have the core capabilities to help you with that strategy.  Can I tell you how?”

Many reps avoid specifics because they worry too much about the downside of being wrong.  But it’s better to be specific and wrong than it is to be accurate and meaningless. Your hypothesis need only be credible, and you need only to be able to show your work.

So take a shot.  Do the math.  Bring your customer to the whiteboard to work on the problem with you and you’re halfway home.

Closing Cases, Solving Crimes.

Watch any police procedural and you’ll hear the grizzled veteran detectives talk about ‘closing cases.’  To add a retro visual, you’ll even see them erase victim names or case numbers from a huge blackboard in the station house.  But as you learn, closing cases is not the same as solving crimes.

The cop who closes cases is mostly concerned about the bureaucracy of getting a case disposed of; tagging it with a plausible outcome and getting it out of active consideration.  It’s Dragnet meets The Dilbert Zone.   In contrast to these uninspired civil servants, we’ll see the real cop in the bunch…the one who isn’t satisfied until she solves the crime and brings the real culprit to justice.

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It’s occurred to me recently that we have a version of this contrast playing out within sales teams in our industry.  There are a lot of erstwhile sellers who are actually just closing cases.  They watch the board, they take notes, they report out what happens.  If they don’t get included on the RFP or the client decides to spend the money with another vendor, they dutifully append the case with the outcome and take it out of circulation.  They will have a half-dozen very good reasons why the sale wasn’t made, and an air-tight rationale for closing it out.

Contrast this with the seller who’s really out to solve the crime.  This seller goes into the investigation with genuine curiosity.  Win or lose, he wants to chase down every lead, interview every witness, eliminate every dead end.  If the case seems to be going cold or the witnesses disappear, he digs deeper and with greater urgency; he finds a way to pry it back open and earning a second or third look from the customer.

Sellers who solve crimes are a rare breed in our station houses.  Maybe it’s because we don’t call out and recognize their particular contributions enough.  Or perhaps we’re just not being clear about the nature of the job that needs to be done.  Is the drive and ability to solve crimes just something you’re born with?  Or can it be taught?  I aim to find out.

We need a new kind of cop in this town.